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Posts Tagged ‘Psycho’

A couple of years ago I signed up for an online course on narrative structure and plotting, with the idea of redrafting the results of my most recent dabbling with NaNoWriMo. Well, needless to say it was not a great success; the successful and published author running the thing tore it to pieces, thought all the things which I liked and made it distinctive were horribly ill-conceived, and basically assured me it was No Good. I haven’t written any substantial fiction since, to be honest, because what I came away with was a deep sense that I do not have any affinity for narrative structure.

We discussed this (narrative structure, not my own hopelessness) now-and-then on the course and one of the stories which came up fairly often was the movie version of Psycho, directed (but of course) by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960. One of the things this film is notorious for is the way in which it cheerfully takes a knife to many of the established tenets of narrative form – it’ll be quite hard to talk about this in detail without spoiling the plot, but surely everyone knows more-or-less what Psycho is about by now, don’t they?

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Janet Leigh (the only performer to appear in three films on the AFI’s Hundred Best Movies list, and also Night of the Lepus) plays Marion Crane, a Phoenix office worker who is unhappy with her lot in life. All her pleasure comes from her illicit liaison with a small-time businessman from California, and they can’t marry due to his sizeable debts. However, when unusual events at work leave her momentarily holding $40,000 of someone else’s money, she thinks she spies an opportunity to make a change in her life, and hits the road with her ill-gotten gains…

It is perhaps indicative of what makes Psycho so unusual that one can summarise the opening twenty or thirty minutes of plot in considerable detail without really giving away what the film is actually about. Certainly, this was one of the things that my structure tutor took grave exception to – a competently-shaped narrative indicates from the very beginning exactly what kind of story it is going to be, thus setting up audience expectations. (A good example of this would be the opening of Predator, which opens with a shot of a spacecraft approaching Earth before launching into what looks like a straightforward jungle action movie.) It occurs to me this is very similar to the concept of musical key – the first note played establishing the parameters of everything that is to follow.

If we’re going to stick with this musical metaphor, then Psycho is an unbalanced, atonal work, because what initially looks like it’s going to be some sort of torrid melodrama suddenly transforms into a vicious horror movie with virtually no warning being given (although the fact that Leigh, the apparent protagonist, has the ‘and’ slot in the credits  could be construed as giving the game away). The transition has the potential to be joltingly odd and alienating for the audience, especially as it accompanies a shift in the focus of the film from one character being central to another, and it’s a mark of Hitchcock’s skill that this is as deftly handled as it is.

And this is not a transition which is derived from Robert Bloch’s original novel, either, which is fascinatingly different from the film in many ways. Most notably, it adheres much more closely to the ‘establishing key’ theory that my tutor was so fond of – Norman Bates and his mother appear in the opening chapters of the book, much earlier than they do in the movie (although this is partly due to the nature of film as a medium: showing us a scene from Norman’s point of view gives Bloch many more options for misdirection than is the case in a more objective movie scene). The novel is also much more upfront about being a horror story, with the viewer being invited to assume at one point that Mother is actually some sort of undead creature conjured up by Norman (more misdirection by the author, though I suppose on some level it’s symbolically true).

Psycho‘s weirdness goes beyond this, of course, partly tying into the darker aspects of the storyline – the two most fully-developed, arguably most sympathetic characters are both morally highly suspect, while the putative ‘good guys’, Sam and Lila, are almost minor characters, scarcely more than two-dimensional figures. The degree to which the film invites you to identify with the dark side is significant: Norman is a voyeur, and so implicitly is Hitchcock’s camera, from the opening where it lazily swoops over downtown Phoenix until finally selecting a window through which to peer.

Hitchcock’s skill is, of course, consummate, but also essential to the success of the undertaking is Bernard Herrmann’s score – not just the manic strings underscoring the title sequence and recurring throughout the early section of the film, but the slower, more ominous cues later on. Is it perfect? Well, certainly not to a modern audience – at the screening I recently attended there was some sniggering at a key revelation during the climax, and a lot of amusement at the rather talky closing scene where Simon Oakland comes on and theatrically explains to the audience just what’s been happening.

However, the success of this film is, of course, considerable – both financially and in terms of its influence. None of the various sequels and remakes are particularly distinguished, to be true, but the film itself is genuinely iconic in terms of both its visuals – the brooding Bates house, for example – and specific sequences – most obviously the plumbing-based interlude. It’s possible that its artistic success may in fact be due to the fact it plays fast and loose with traditional structure, thus alienating and unsettling the audience, and if so then this can only work because Psycho is, at heart, essentially a horror movie, where this is the intended effect. The fact that it’s the great horror movie that no-one really thinks of as a horror movie says more about sniffy attitudes to the genre than Psycho itself.

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‘All right,’ I said, ‘you wanted this job as Comparison Wrangler, you got it.’

‘Great,’ he said.

‘But now I’m expecting good stuff from you every time. Waterworld meets City of God and One flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing set the bar pretty high, but one duff comparison and you’re back to being the blog’s Motorsport and Latin America Correspondent.’

‘Right, I understand.’

‘Okay then – what did you think of the film?’

My newly-installed Comparison Wrangler thought for a moment. ‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns.’

It took me a moment to digest that. ‘Your job is safe,’ I eventually said.

The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns – I don’t know about you, but that’s a pitch for a film I’d really like to see. Whether it’s actually a fair description of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is another matter, for while this movie has its fair share of spectral visitations and performers in heavy prosthetics (which I eventually realised was what the Wrangler was on about), there is a lot of other stuff going on here, most of it highly entertaining.

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The vast majority of this film is set in the late 1950s and concerns one of the most interesting periods in the life of the legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock. The famously corpulent artist is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in heavy prosthetics that do indeed give him a striking resemblence to Toby Jones, while his long-suffering wife Alma is played by Helen Mirren. Following the success of the slick and glitzy thriller North by Northwest, Hitch finds himself casting fruitlessly about for a new project – the studio just wants him to do more of the same, but he feels the urge to do something completely new, unorthodox, and shocking. In the end he settles on a slightly pulpy horror novel by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of the notorious serial killer Ed Gein. The book is called Psycho.

Naturally, the studio, the censor’s office and some of those around Hitchcock are dubious about the new project – to the point where he and his wife take the decision to finance it themselves, remortgaging their home to do so. However, as production gets underway, the great director finds himself somewhat distracted from his work – not just by his usual fixation on young blonde starlets, but by darker and more peculiar shadows – and, above all, the suspicion that his wife’s loyalty to him is not as perfect as he has always suspected it to be.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, rather more than I honestly expected to, but this doesn’t really change the fact that it is a rather peculiar piece of work. Rather appropriately, it has a bit of a multiple personality problem, changing its tone and focus frequently throughout its length. It opens with a scene in which Gein (played by Michael Wincott) himself is seen committing the first of his murders, which suddenly turns comic as Hitchcock appears in frame and starts addressing the audience directly, in the style of one of the introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The idea that this is going to be a knowing piece of metafiction with blackly comic overtones does not last long, as the section of the film is played straight – until there’s another fantasy sequence featuring Gein. The film slides back and forth like this – in some places it’s a weird phantasmagorical comedy-drama, in others a serious examination of the personalities and relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, in yet more it’s a breezy look at the making of Psycho (James Darcy plays Anthony Perkins, Scarlett Johanssen gives us a perky Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel is Vera Miles).

Now, it doesn’t actually do any of these things badly – but the frequent shifting between them does leave one never quite sure how to react. The material with Hitchcock hanging out with Gein’s phantom is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, sometimes just peculiar, but it’s the least prominent part of the film. All the serious acting is going on in the plotline about Hitchcock’s personal issues and his relationship with his wife. I have to say that, despite the best efforts of the make-up people, Anthony Hopkins simply doesn’t look a huge amount like Hitchcock, and his accent isn’t quite there either. If this is a problem, it’s tempting to stick some of the blame on Hitch himself, for making himself such an iconic figure at the time. Hopkins isn’t actually bad, but Mirren is certainly much better, even though hers is the less juicy part.

This is actually a rather sympathetic depiction of Hitchcock, on the whole – his well-publicised tendencies with respect to his leading ladies are acknowledged, and there’s a scene where he attempts to spy on Vera Miles changing, but on the whole the tone is so jovial and celebratory that one comes away a little bemused at just how well he comes off.

One senses that the heart of the film is really only in the behind-the-scenes stuff on Psycho. Many of the famous anecdotes about the making of the film are brought to the screen – although the allegation that Hitchcock didn’t actually direct the shower scene himself is not aired – and even people very familiar with the movie may learn some new stuff; I certainly did. Considering that Hitchcock doesn’t contain a single frame of the original movie, and only uses certain very limited elements of the soundtrack, it all feels surprisingly authentic (there’s a nice deadpan gag where Hitchcock assures the censor that the film will be much less questionable with Herrman’s ‘beautiful, lyrical’ music added to it). The best moment of the film comes when Hitchcock, listening to an audience’s reaction to the film, appears to orchestrate their response like a conductor. If nothing else Hitchcock reminded me of what a toweringly brilliant movie Psycho is.

This is an engaging and very enjoyable film, but I do sort of wonder what the point of it is – it’s not as if Alfred Hitchcock is some forgotten genius, and Psycho a great, lost, unlauded film. People started openly ripping off Hitchcock even while he was still alive and have been doing so on and off ever since, and Psycho is one of the founding texts of the modern horror movie. Hitchcock is ultimately rather superfluous and doesn’t tell us anything especially new – but as redundant movies go, it’s highly agreeable.

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